A Troublesome Boy

Teddy can’t believe how fast his life has changed in just two years. When he was twelve, his father took off, and then his mother married Henry, a man Teddy despises. But Teddy has no control over his life, and adults make all the decisions, especially in 1959. Henry decides that Teddy should be sent to St. Ignatius Academy for Boys, an isolated boarding school run by the Catholic church.
St. Iggy’s, Teddy learns, is a cold, unforgiving place — something between a juvenile detention center and reform school. The other boys are mostly a cast of misfits and eccentrics, but Teddy quickly becomes best friends with Cooper, a wise-cracking, Wordsworth-loving kid with a history of neglect. Despite the priests’ ruthless efforts to crack down on the slightest hint of defiance or attitude, the boys get by for a while on their wits, humor and dreams of escape. But the beatings, humiliation and hours spent in the school’s infamous “time-out” rooms, and the institutionalized system of power and abuse that protects the priests’ authority, eventually take their toll, especially on the increasingly fragile Cooper.
Then one of the new priests, Father Prince, starts to summon Cooper to his room at night, and Teddy watches helplessly as his friend withdraws into his own private nightmare, even as Prince targets Teddy himself as his next victim.

Related: Canada, Realistic Fiction, Young Adult (ages 14-18)

3 thoughts on “A Troublesome Boy

  1. Gail Pritchard says:

    This morning, my mother-in-law, who is visiting, told me she really tried to read A Troublesome Boy–that she really wanted to read it–but just couldn’t get past the first few chapters. She said she just knew Cooper would take his own life, and she “just couldn’t go there.” She wondered about the reactions of kids to this book. I want to know that, too. I’m looking for a group of adolescent readers who will take on this challenge; know any?

  2. Paul Vasey

    Why would an author write about this subject?
    The back story: A few years ago my wife and I were returning to Ontario from British Columbia and wound up staying in the town where I had been sent to a Catholic boarding school for boys. My wife said ‘I’d like to see that place.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t.’ My wife said ‘I’d really like to see that place.’ And so, of course, we drove up to have a look. And so a door which I had closed, more or less successfully, half a century earlier was opened once more. So that’s the genesis of the story which took me the next four years to get down and get right.
    It’s a very timely story. Seems not a week goes by that we don’t read another newspaper account about pedophile priests and the desperate attempts of the church to protect itself from the fallout (rather than protect the victims). Enraging. But as compelling as all those stories were, and are, something was missing. All those accounts were told from the outside: a recitation of facts. It seemed to me the story needed to be told from the point of view of an insider, someone who was witnessing and experiencing the abuse. As they say in the trade: you may either tell me about something, or show it to me. Showing is always best, because it allows the reader to ‘feel’ the story. And I wanted readers to actually feel they were inside a place like the one I’d been sent to and to experience through a child’s eyes what that might be like.
    Up popped Teddy Clemson who charmed and captivated me. And Cooper, of course, who is a sort of amalgam of boys I knew and some I’d met while doing research for Kids In The Jail, a book about youngsters who wound up in a maxium-security jail for young offenders. Of the fourteen boys and girls in that jail, thirteen had no contact with their parents. They were, as the jail’s superintendent told me, “throw-away kids”.
    Cooper would have fit right in. He’s very much like some of the kids I met in the jail: bright, gifted, irascible, cheeky, a little dangerous and no match for the forces which confound and ultimately defeat him.
    You wonder, Gail: ‘where are the responsible, caring adults?’
    I can’t answer that question. It’s a mystery to me. As a parent and grandparent I find incomprehensible that someone would choose to be absent. But one question I could, and very much wanted to, answer was: ‘what happens to these throw-away kids?’
    Cooper is the answer to that question.
    Cooper broke my heart. And I wanted him to break yours.

    Michelle wonders about ‘the negative portrayal of adults, religious ideas and boarding school experience’ in the novel. I choose to think it ‘realistic’ rather than ‘negative’. The adults in the novel are guilty of many things, betrayal most of all. Parents abandon their children, priests who are meant to nurture and protect the children in their care choose instead to abuse their power (and the boys) with impunity. It was (and perhaps still is) a closed society. As Rita says, ‘it’s like they got a moat around the place’.
    The priests knew (as I suspect all pedophiles know) which boys are most vulnerable (i.e. which boys have no one to answer the phone) and they knew, too, the church’s code of silence would serve to shield them.
    Religious ideas? The priests in the story make a mockery of the religion they profess to profess. In a very real sense, these fictional priests, like real-life molesters, are not priests at all. They are monsters in priests’ robes. No real priest could act that way. It must sadden and horrify real priests to contemplate what these men have done to the reputation of their church.
    ‘How do we raise these issues without creating misconceptions or making overgeneralizations?’ The story is told from the point of view of a boy who is ‘almost fourteen and a half’. He’s cheeky and irreverent. That’s the way kids are.
    ‘How might someone who sends their children to boarding schools respond?’
    Well, I’d suggest they have their child read the book and I would urge them not to drop their kids off at the door and say, as my own father did to the priest in charge: ‘Do whatever you want with him. You won’t get any arguments from me’.
    And, these days, two further things:
    Make sure your child has a cellphone.
    And make sure you answer when he calls.

  3. T. Gail Prichard and Michele Ebersole says:

    A Troublesome Boy by Paul Vasey is one of the most visceral reads I have ever encountered. From the beginning, Vasey makes it clear where the plot is heading—into a world where young boys are victimized by adults. And while the book is set in 1959, it could just as easily be today—in fact, ripped from recent headlines about Monsignor William Lynn and his role in protecting priests who are pedophiles, as well as those about Jerry Sandusky and the administration at Penn State who protected him.

    Teddy’s father walked out of his life and Henry, the new boyfriend, walks in and takes over. Henry’s first order of business after moving in with Teddy’s mother, is to send 14 ½-year-old Teddy off to “a boarding school in the middle of nowhere.” Teddy, labeled “a troublesome boy by the guidance counselor at his previous school, finds himself at “St. Iggy’s…something between a private school and a reform school.” Teddy quickly discovers the inhumaneness at St. Iggy’s: Father Sullivan’s physical brutality, Father Prince’s sexual, and those whose blind obedience to the church allows them to look the other way. Teddy creates a bond with Cooper, a lover of Wordsworth, and Rozey, the handyman. As the story progresses, the cruelties increase—to the point where Cooper is no longer able to deal with the physical and emotional pain inflicted upon him by the adults in his life. As a reader, I could see where the story was heading. While I really wanted Cooper’s friendship with Teddy and Rozey to be enough to sustain him, I knew the inevitable was going to take place. From his perspective of the world and the adults in it, his pain and the betrayal by the adults in his life were insurmountable. Rather than running away as he had originally planned, Cooper chooses a permanent escape that leaves Teddy determined to end the injustices at St. Iggy’s.

    While reading A Troublesome Boy, I experienced a rage toward the adults who created the absolute Hell these boys experienced, from the apathy of the parents to the priests who perpetrated the abuse to those who looked the other way. As a mother, I was incensed that Teddy’s and Cooper’s mothers abdicated their responsibilities; Teddy’s mother allowed her boyfriend to make decisions about her son and Cooper’s mother’s addictions took precedence over her son. I have no words to describe my feelings toward the priests who physically, sexually, and emotionally abused the students (nor for Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State administrators). In thinking about those who actually committed the violence, I almost become physically ill. I do not care about any excuses—they were adults who made conscious decisions to harm those in their care and I simply cannot understand their actions. And, as I read, I thought a lot about why an author would write about this subject. Perhaps, as he notes, as a “boarding school survivor, “ he was left wondering how a situation like this can/does occur? Where are the responsible, caring adults? Where are the mothers, fathers, the teachers/priests, coaches who are supposed to be the trusted adults? Why do those who know, look the other way?

    I agree. This reading also left me with an overwhelming sense of anger and frustration towards the adults in the story who were responsible for inflicting such pain and suffering upon the young boys. The actions of the adults in the story were simply unjustifiable and inexcusable. As I read I also wondered about the intention of the author because one cannot help but leave the story upset by the events and the resolution in the story. The author carefully crafted the story to leave readers with a compelling urge to help children whose voices are silenced and marginalized by those in power. While I feel this is critical, I also wondered how some might object to the negative portrayal of the adults, religious ideas, and boarding school experience depicted in the story. How might someone from the Catholic Church feel about the way religious ideas were portrayed? How might someone who send their children to boarding schools respond? I also believe that some would question, how do we raise these issues without creating misconceptions or making overgeneralizations which can generate fear in students?

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